‘Appropriate’ It Isn’t – Speakeasy Delivers Taut Family Drama – (4 Stars)

‘Appropriate’ – Written by Branden Jacob-Jenkins. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco; Costume Design by Tyler Kinney; Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao; Sound Design by Arshan Gailus. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through October 10.

Bo (Bryan T. Donovan) is materialistic and controlling. Toni (Melinda Lopez) is cruel and unhappy. Franz (Alex Pollock) is a recovering addict and the family screw up. These three siblings, along with their significant others and children, come together at the family’s decrepit Arkansas plantation to settle the affairs of their recently deceased father. Among his belongings, they discover a gruesome keepsake from Dad’s past that brings to light an abhorrent and secret legacy. Despite the white elephant in the room, the three soldier on, each with the hope of filling a void, whether it be financial (Bo), forgiveness (Franz) or family (Toni). Over the next two hours, we see that their expectations will not only be dashed, but shattered irreparably.

As Toni, Melinda Lopez manages to invoke both disgust and pity. I first saw Melinda many years ago in a production of Craig Lucas’s “Blue Window” at the Boston Center for the Arts, and the actor sitting next to me (who would later become my husband) and I marveled over how unbelievably good she was, how instinctive. She still is, and then some. Franz, the family black sheep and whipping boy, is sympathetically played by Alex Pollock, who, despite trying to make amends, just can’t seem to catch a break. Ashley Risteen, as Franz’s young, New Age girlfriend River, brings a grounded comedic energy to the role. Her presence is a light amongst the scowling and growling siblings. Eliot Purcell is effective and moving as Toni’s troubled son, Rhys.

The ramshackle set, designed by Cristina Todesco and running the entire length of the stage, is incredible to behold, worthy of its own headshot and bio. Its cracked and crumbly walls look like they can barely contain the weight of the boxes and knickknacks crammed onto the shelves, never mind the psychic weight of the explosive family staying under its roof. Ashan Gallus’s sound design captures the oppression of the dynamics; the heavy, intense whirring of cicadas foreshadows the intensity that the loathsome discovery unleashes. M. Bevin O’Gara’s direction keeps the action fluid and natural, despite the often heavy dialogue.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Obie-winning play does an excellent job of tackling a myriad of themes: racism, family dysfunction, the ability (or inability) to change, and denial. Despite its dark subject matter, there are plenty of laughs in the dialogue to offset the deeply disturbing undertones. This is not a play about redemption, or of tying up loose ends. My biggest problem with the piece is that other than the children, who haven’t lived long enough to be truly bitter, none of the characters are all that likeable. This can be an uncomfortable play to sit through; in watching the siblings relate to one another as well as to the source of their unhappiness, we as audience members are reminded, to a lesser extent, of our own familial roles and weaknesses. For more info, go to: http://www.speakeasystage.com/appropriate/